Leadership development is more crucial today than ever. When the workplace was mostly composed of manufacturing plants, the leader had only to shout orders at workers who had to follow them. It was quite simple. Workers could operate through a level of development that is quite close to what we expect of an adolescent: abide by the common rules and do your job.

Yesterday Truth Doesn’t Fit Today’s world

Since then, our world became more complex, more informed, more volatile and more global. One rule doesn’t fit the reality of workers anymore, not even in the same organization. Nuances and differences are the new currency that forces leaders to deal with complexity at many levels. One project will be so different from another that what you expect from one functional team differs radically from another functional team. Furthermore, a structural leader has to review the performance of a team member who works on a project he knows nothing about.

There is an urge for leaders to develop so that they can lead efficiently today’s workforce. But how can they develop? What we observe is a gap between what is needed, the obvious urgency of change, and the inability to change. The confusion arises from the idea that you can grow by learning a new skill set. Creating new routines, new processes or just sending leaders to a program that will feed their knowledge not their operating system. If we take the metaphor of a computer, growing a leader with skill set is expecting to change its operating system by adding more memory to the mother card. It won’t work. A skill set is a number of things you know and can do. Like the size of the processor. But development is the ability to reflect on yourself and understand when you are ruled by habits or when you can create your own habits. It is your ability to think as a subject (rules by) or an object (create the rules).

Technical Change and Adaptive Change.

Ronald Heifetz, Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, makes an important distinction between technical change and adaptive change. The former is the ability to learn a well-known new skill set necessary to perform a complicated behavior. The latter is the ability to transform your “mindset by advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development” (source: Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, Immunity to Change).

Ronald Heifetz says that the biggest error leaders make are when they think they can grow (face adaptive challenges) by applying technical changes. We need adaptive means to meet adaptive challenges, which is the realm of development, of changing your operating system altogether. Developing is when you reduce the gap between the complexity level of your mind and the complexity level of the world. If you don’t, then you increase the gap by staying at a level of development that is unfit to face today’s challenges and you are “in over your head”, to paraphrase Robert Kegan.

The good news is that you can grow and develop by bringing understanding on your level of development. You can Explore the why’s of your behavior to slowly but surely get out of the state where you are ruled by your principles to enter the world where you create your rules or create the rules that fit best the system at a specific time. That is leadership development.

Sara Bigwood
Collaboration Builder & Leadership Development